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Students are central to the teaching process. In the most simplistic view, if students don’t show up, there’s no one to teach. But beyond that, researchers and educators alike are beginning to realize that students have to be more than just physically present to learn what the standards specify. Students must somehow become deeply engaged in their own learning, and that means they have to have input into what they learn, how they learn, and the environment in which they learn. We call that “student voice” and that’s the focus of this month’s MI Toolkit.

Dr. Dave Chapin, Director of MI Excel Focus Schools, recently attended a gathering of 14 Ingham County high schools at MSU’s Kellogg Center. The event, United for Social Progress, was organized as a way to recognize, celebrate, and utilize student voice. In this video, the administrators from these schools offer their views on the importance of student voice in teaching and learning.

In defining student voice, researchers have chosen a variety of terms including “student participation, active citizenship, youth leadership, and youth empowerment.”1 Noted educational researcher David Hargreaves defines student voice as “mainly about how students come to play a more active role in their education and schooling as a direct result of teachers becoming more attentive, in sustained or routine ways, to what students say about their experience of learning and school life.”2 Dr. Hargreaves believes student voice is a vital component of school change, the improvement of teaching and learning, and consequently, an increase in student achievement.

Dana Mitra, Associate Professor in Education at Penn State University and a leading expert on student voice, suggests that student voice consists of a range of student activities and involvement: “Student voice can range from the most basic level of youth sharing their opinions of problems and potential solutions; to allowing young people to collaborate with adults to address the problems in their schools; to youth taking the lead on seeking change.”3

In their 2012 publication, Motivation, Engagement, and Student Voice, Eric Toshalis and Michael Nakkula visualize student voice as a continuum of activities, presented in Figure 1 to the right. kathleen spectrum student voice thumbnailOn the left, student voice is simply that: students providing input into decisions that affect them. As you move across the page, the role of students broaden and deepen. At the most comprehensive level, students move from being passive receptacles of learning who provide some data and perspective to student leaders and change agents.

This is a very different way of educating students, one that teachers, administrators, and other adults may find disconcerting.  Part of the problem is the common misconception that adults must relinquish control. According to Toshalis and Nakkula, “This is neither true nor desirable….Adults still guide and coach these partnerships, but in doing so, youth are understood to be indispensable rather than auxiliary in the work (26).”

Student voice is a vast topic, but one that is so critical to the work of teaching and learning that we will return to it often in future Toolkit issues. In this issue you’ll find a video where you’ll hear what some Michigan educators are saying about student voice. Also in this issue, Dr. Jacquelyn Thompson addresses the importance of giving voice to students with IEPs and Dr. Theodore Ransaw offer a research-based perspective on using hip-hop as a vehicle for student voice and student engagement. These are just a few of the resources, articles and tools you'll find in this month's Toolkit.


This article was written with contribution from:

author boggs2

Brian Boggs is a dual PhD candidate in educational policy and administration, and works for the Office of K–12 Outreach at Michigan State University. He has an Urban Education endorsement from MSU and is an EPFP alumnus and a member of Global EPFP cohort, which is studying school policy in London, England. After obtaining his bachelor’s degree in English and history and master’s degree in English language and literature, he returned to his alma mater to teach college rhetoric in the Department of English at the University of Michigan – Flint. Brian’s research interests include organizational theory, policy making, sociology of education, experimental design, school improvement, and the history and politics of U.S. education.



1 Mitra, D. L., “Student Voice and Student Roles in Education Policy and Policy Reform.” In D. N. Plank, G. Sykes & B. Schneider (Eds.), AERA Handbook on Education Policy Research (pp. 819-830). London: Routledge, 2009.

2 Hargreaves, David, Personalising Learning—2: Student Voice and Assessment for Learning, Specialist Schools and Academies Trust: London, 2004.

3 Mitra, D. L., “Student Voice and Student Roles in Education Policy and Policy Reform.” In D. N. Plank, G. Sykes & B. Schneider (Eds.), AERA Handbook on Education Policy Research (pp. 819-830). London: Routledge, 2009.


Kathleen Snyder

author snyder

Kathleen McKee Snyder is the Director of Communications for the Office of K-12 Outreach in the College of Education at Michigan State University. Prior to that, she worked for more than a decade with nationally renowned education researcher and speaker, Dr. Lawrence W. Lezotte...

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